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The Meaning of Water in Christianity

Alexander Pokhilko

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For thousands of years water has been among the main religious symbols. This is indeed the case for the Orthodox Christian tradition where it is involved in liturgical mysteries from baptism and the Eucharist to the rites of the Blessing of the waters. Why is water so central to Christian religious life? Let us attempt to answer this question by turning to Biblical history and Christian tradition with particular reference to the office of Epiphany.

Water as a symbol of life as well as a means of cleansing, or purification, is of particular importance in Old Testament. It was created on the first day (Genesis 1:2, 6-8). The Spirit of God was hovering over the face of the waters (Genesis 1:2). The earth was founded upon the waters (Genesis 1:6-7, 9-10). God commanded the water to bring out an abundance of living souls (Genesis 1:20-21). In some sense the element is close to God (Psalms 17; 28:3; 76:17, 20; 103:3; 148:4). God is compared with the rain (Hosea 6:3). Water brings life (cf. Exodus 15:23-35; 17:2-7; Psalms 1:3; 22:2; 41:2; 64:10; 77:20; Isaiah 35:6-7; 58:11) and joy (Psalm 45:5). It is a powerful purifying element and can destroy evil and enemies as in the stories of the Flood and the flight of Israel from Egypt (Genesis 3:1-15; Exodus 14:1-15:21). According to Old Testament Law, it cleanses defilement (Leviticus 11:32; 13:58; 14:8, 9; 15-17; 22:6; cf. Isaiah 1:16) and is used in sacrifices (Leviticus 1:9, 13; 6:28; 1 Kings 18:30-39), in which context the Bible mentions the living water (Leviticus 14; Numbers 5; 19). Water heals, as can be seen from the stories of Naaman the Syrian cured from his leprosy in the waters of Jordan (2 Kings 5:1-14) and the annual miracles at Bethesda in Jerusalem (John 5:1-4). John the Baptist used the waters of the Jordan to cleanse people's sins which reminded typical Jewish custom (Matthew 3:1-6; Mark 1:4-5; Luke 3:2-16; John 1:26-33) - even Christ came to be baptized (Matthew 3:16; Mark 1:10). On the other hand, water is also the habitat of serpents whose heads God crushed (Psalm 73:13-14) and of the dragon (Job 41:25; Psalm 103:26).

We can see from this the belief common in the Old Testament that water is a mystically powerful element which, being connected with God in some way, can cleanse sins, inner and outer defilement, and regenerate the human body. It is even possible to assert that water has taken on the religious symbol of life.

In New Testament the role of water seems to be more significant yet more symbolic. Christ turns water into wine at Cana (John 2:1-11), saying it is a means to a new spiritual birth into the kingdom of heaven (John 3:5). Christ gives living water which is the source of eternal life (John 4:10-14; 7:38) as foretold by the Prophet Jeremiah (2:13). He came in water, blood and the Spirit, witnessing to one God (1 John 5:6-8). He commands watery baptism in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19; Acts 8:38). When speaking about baptism, St Paul states that in water we are buried with our sins in the likeness of Christ's death:

We were buried with Him through baptism into death, that just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, even so we also should walk in newness of life (Romans 6:4).

In him also you were circumcised with a spiritual circumcision, by putting off the body of the flesh in the circumcision of Christ, buried with Him in baptism, in which you also were raised with Him through faith in the working of God, who raised Him from the dead (Colossians 2:12).

Moreover, the watery mystery is connected with the Holy Spirit, the Divine Person that accomplishes rebirth (John 3:5-6; Acts 8:39; cf. Acts 1-2).

From this we can see how the New Testament integrates Old Testament belief. Unlike the Old Testament, the role of water appears to be Christocentric and explicitly connected with the presence of the Holy Spirit. The element has taken on the symbol of spiritual grace. Moreover, the Old Testament concept of water prefigures the baptismal mystery. This meaning of water has been elaborately interpreted in Christian tradition. Let us now look at certain aspects of it.

The story of the Flood is a very popular prototype of baptism. Its origins are clearly shown in 1 Peter 3:20-21 according to which we are to understand the Flood as baptism and those few who were saved in the ark prefigured the Church of baptized Christians saved by the resurrection of Christ. In his dispute with Trypho, Justin Martyr expounds the image more profoundly:

The mystery of saved men appeared in the deluge. For righteous Noah, along with the other mortals at the deluge, being eight in number, were a symbol of the eighth day, wherein Christ appeared when he rose from the dead. For Christ, being the first-born of every creature, became again the chief of another race regenerated by himself through water, and faith, and wood, containing the mystery of the cross; even as Noah was saved by wood when he rode over the waters with his household. By water, faith, and wood, those who are afore-prepared, and who repent of the sins which they have committed, shall escape from the impending judgment of God (Dialogue with Trypho 138:1-2).

The image of Christ as the new Noah gradually became very popular in the context of the Epiphany. Likewise the interpretation of the dove announcing the end of the Flood (Exodus 8:8-12) as the prototype of the Holy Spirit, unfolding Trinitarian teaching. Nonetheless, traditional exegesis used in the liturgy focuses mainly on the contrast between these two baptisms: for although the Flood cleansed sins, it destroyed the living world whereas Christian baptism cleanses sins, imparts new life, and raises the world to heaven. John of Damascus clearly recognises the Flood as the very first baptism which destroyed sins (Expositio Fidei 82:67). Troparion 3 of ode 7 of his Epiphany canon is built on this imagery. He applies the image of the Flood both to baptism in general and to the baptism of Christ in particular. In the latter case we encounter the idea that positive changes of fallen creation first took place in the human nature of Christ. For the salvation of mortals he washed away sin in water as well as the Flood. John uses this language not to deepen the mystery but to emphasise the fullness of the human nature of Christ.

Another baptismal prototype appears in Exodus. St Paul was the first to refer to the story of the flight of Israel in the terms of baptism:

All our fathers were under the cloud, all passed through the sea, all were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. Now these things became our examples (1 Corinthians 10:1-2, 6).

The Cappadocians extensively explored this image as well. Enumerating the five kinds of baptism with that of Moses being the first among them, Gregory Nazianzen clarifies that "this was typical as Paul says: the sea of the water, and the cloud of the Spirit" (Oration 39, PG 36, 353). According to the comparison made by Basil, echoed by Gregory of Nyssa, the fount of baptism releases Christians from the tyranny of the devil in the same way that Israel was delivered from the Pharaoh by the sea, the Egyptians who perished thus prefiguring both the devil and sins (Basil the Great, De Spiritu sancto 14:1-9. Cf. Gregory of Nyssa, In diem luminum). This image is also popular in the Nativity and Epiphany Hymns of Ephraem the Syrian (NH 7, 9, 13; EH 1, 7, 5; NPNF 2, 13:223-262; 265-289) where we find similar interpretations. John of Damascus quotes Gregory Nazianzen when explaining the mystery of Christian baptism (Expositio Fidei 82:67-69). In this light, irmos 1 of his Epiphany canon is not merely an allusion to the first biblical canticle but an integral part of the theological structure of the poem. The image in irmos 1 unfolds in irmos 3 illustrating that the deliverance of Israel prefigures Christian baptism and universal salvation, which is in keeping with the tradition. Nonetheless, John seems to develop it to an extent that the image applies to the baptism of Christ himself, because primary changes, as we have said above, were accomplished in his human nature as follows from the troparia between these irmoi.

In the act of divine kenosis Christ cleansed his own body from sin in water not because he was sinful but since he was "the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world" (John 1:29, 36) and thus he acknowledged the importance of Old Testament which he came to fulfill. However, the meaning of water in the Old Testament seems to change with the baptism of Christ. Water had been infected by the sins and defilements washed in it and therefore in the Psalter, and in some Christian authors, was called the habitat of the devil (Psalms 73:13-14; 103:26. Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 39, PG 36, 353:30: "the devil is king living in the waters." Ephraem, NH 2). By entering the waters of the Jordan, Christ purified and blessed this element for our baptismal purification (Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 38, PG 36, 329:23-27; Oration 39, PG 36, 352:25-29. Ephraem, EH 2; the refrain of 9; 10).

The healing power of water as indicated in the story of the prophet Elisha and Naaman the Syrian (2 Kings 5:1-14) and also in Old Testament Law, is of paramount importance in reference to baptism (Gregory of Nyssa, In diem luminum. Ephraem, NH 12; EH 1, 6, 11). However, Christian tradition emphasizes that the water receives grace and power only through the presence of the Holy Spirit (Basil the Great, De Spiritu sancto 15). The perfect illustration of this is to be found in St Paul, where baptism in which water symbolizes death, receives the body like a tomb (and sometimes we come across the thought that thrice-repeated baptism reminds of the three days of Christ's burial in the tomb) - but the Spirit gives life which is initially birth from above (Basil the Great, De Spiritu sancto 15. Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 38, PG 36, 328:24; Oration 39, PG 36, 352:25-30. Ephraem, EH 3). Consequently, water prepares a person for the Spirit, which is conditioned by the idea that a human being consists of two natures, spiritual (soul) and corporeal (body). According to this concept, baptismal water purifies the body and the Holy Spirit, present in it, cleanses the soul, thus accomplishing the rebirth about which Christ spoke to Nicodemus (John 1:21. Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 40, PG 36, 368:12-17). Baptism is performed in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit (Matthew 28:19). From this it is clear that purification by water serves as the introduction to the mystery of Trinity (Justin Martyr, Apology 1, 61:3-5, ANF 1. Gregory Nazianzen, Oration 39, PG 36:348, Oration 40, PG 36:380. Ephraem, EH 9, 12).

However, water in Christian tradition has an even wider application. In the Eucharistic rite it is mingled with wine at the liturgy of preparation after the priest has pronounced verses 34-35 from John 19, thus clearly indicating the origin of this detail:

One of the soldiers pierced his side with a spear, and at once blood and water came out. He who saw it bore witness, and his witness is true.

Immediately preceding Holy Communion, hot water is to be added to the sanctified cup with the words:

Blessed is the fervor of thy Holy Things, always, now and for ever, and to the ages of ages. The fervor of faith, full of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

In two reasonably detailed accounts of the Eucharist given by Justin in the First Apology 65, 67 we encounter, for the first time in Christian literature, the cup containing wine mixed with water. Also an additional cup is mentioned filled with water only, probably, a peculiarity of the baptismal Eucharist. Although Justin does not explain the precise meaning of the rite, these liturgical instances give a clear indication that the mixing of wine with water is derived from the Gospels (John 19:34) and that water in some way is associated with the Holy Spirit.

Epiphanius of Salamis and John Chrysostom describe the custom of obtaining sanctified water from the streams at midnight on Epiphany and keeping it throughout the year. Epiphanius connects this with the miracle at Cana (John 2:1-11) but for Chrysostom it is the remembrance of baptism (Matthew 3:11-17; Mark 1:7-11; Luke 3:15-22; John 1:29-34). This custom became a part of liturgical tradition in which we encounter the rite of sanctification of water. As follows from the prayers of the rite composed by Sophronius of Jerusalem in the seventh century and corresponding with those at Christian baptism the water is consecrated in the remembrance of the baptism of Christ in which it was originally sanctified. Although the element is given a similar miracle-working role as in Old Testament, it is important to note that in Christian tradition any power is in the first place ascribed to God and to the Holy Spirit, and not to the water itself:

Thou, our God, hast appeared on earth and dwelt among men, thou hast sanctified the streams of Jordan, sending down from on high the most Holy Spirit, and Thou hast broken the heads of the dragons hidden therein. Therefore, O King who loves mankind, do Thou Thyself be present now as then through the descent of Thy Holy Spirit, and sanctify this water, and confer upon it the grace of redemption, the blessing of the Jordan. Make it a source of incorruption, a gift of sanctification, a remission of sins, a protection against decease, a destruction to demons that all who draw from it and partake of it may have it for the cleansing of their soul and body (Prayer of the Consecration of Water, the Eve of Epiphany, Menaion January 6).

The meaning of water as reflected in earlier ecclesiastical tradition was familiar to John of Damascus who summarized it in Expositio Fidei:

Water, then, is the most beautiful element and rich in usefulness, and purifies from all filth, and not only from the filth of the body but from that of the soul, if it should have received the grace of the Spirit (Expositio Fidei 23:58-60).

Christ taught his own disciples the invocation and said, baptizing them in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. For since Christ made us for incorruption and we transgressed his saving command he condemned us to the corruption of death in order that what is evil should not be immortal, and when in his compassion he stooped to his servants and became like us, he redeemed us from corruption through his own passion. He caused the fountain of remission to well forth for us out of his holy and immaculate side, water for our regeneration, and the washing away of sin and corruption; and blood to drink as the hostage of life eternal. He laid on us the command to be born again of water and of the Spirit, through prayer and invocation, the Holy Spirit drawing nigh unto the water. For since man's nature is twofold, consisting of soul and body, he bestowed on us a twofold purification of water and of the Spirit, the Spirit renewing that part in us which is after his image and likeness, and the water by the grace of the Spirit cleansing the body from sin and delivering it from corruption, the water indeed expressing the image of death, but the Spirit affording the earnest of life. The regeneration, however, takes place in the Spirit: for faith has the power of making us sons of God, creatures as we are, by the Spirit, and of leading us into our original blessedness (Expositio Fidei 82:25-42, 50-52).

Using the prayers by Sophronius as his main source John integrated the traditional concept of water into his iambic canon for the Epiphany, as we can see by the frequent references to it in the text of the poem. The Pauline idea of watery burial unfolds there to the extent that both sins and the old man are buried in baptism (acrostic, irmos 1; 1:2). Baptism accomplishes the regeneration of humanity first in Christ and then in Christians (1:2; 3:2; irmos 4) who are made the sons of God (4:1; irmos 8). Also John points out that even in the Person of Christ the perfection of human nature would be impossible without the fellowship of the Holy Spirit (irmos 5; 9:2). Unlike the Old Testament John emphasizes that human defilement and sins are washed by God for which purpose water is actually of secondary importance (1:1; 5:1; 8:2; 9:2). As result of the baptism of Christ the devil dwelling in the water due to previously washed sins was burnt and the water was sanctified for our baptism (irmos 7; 7:1). All positive changes taking place therein have a universal impact on creation and cosmos.

As we have seen, the role of water elaborated in the Old Testament inevitably passed into the New Testament and was incorporated into Christian tradition where it unfolds in the texts of baptism, Eucharist, and the Epiphany office. Although the concept of water found in liturgical tradition may correspond with some obscure Jewish, Gnostic or primitive Christian beliefs, it in fact rests upon a distinct New Testament and Patristic basis devoid of any mysticism. The latter is concerned with the importance of water primarily in baptism which was prefigured in Old Testament.

Apart from the importance of water for life and purification, the Christian scriptural idea of water preserves a certain symbolism reflected in the liturgical tradition. Water transmits a number of symbols: destruction; death and burial; life; purification; cleansing; healing; blessing; sanctification; baptism including remission of sins, illumination, regeneration, new birth; the presence of the Holy Spirit; redemption; salvation. These rely upon a "rational" theological perception of mysteries hidden in water according to which the omnipresent God initiates any sacramental activity therein. From this perspective water appears to be a unique earthly element capable of immediate contact with God. Taken together these give us the meaning of water in Christianity.

Read this article on the Orthodox Europe website. Reprinted with permission.

Posted: 3/24/04

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